SEATED BESIDE HIS PARTNER Os in the forward seat of the stretch, just behind the driver beyond his soundproof partition, Mark Sterling surveyed the trio from the Taurus, now arrayed across the forward-facing rear seat as though they really should be doing see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil. They were not an inspiring lot. Years of factory jobs interspersed with bowling had left them soft and paunchy, with blurred round faces. Their T-shirts were walking billboards for Miller Lite, Bud, and the Philadelphia Eagles football team. They did not, at first blush, look like anything a truly serious conspirator would want in his cabal.
Well, this had been Mark’s idea to begin with, Os being on the fence vis-`a-vis the proposal, leaning toward the negative. So now was the moment of truth, the plunge, the spin of the wheel.
“I should begin,” Mark said, smiling in his clubby fashion at the trio, hoping to put them a bit more at their ease, since at the moment they couldn’t have looked less at their ease had they been seated in a tumbrel surrounded by people speaking French. “We should introduce ourselves,” he said, then gestured gracefully at Meadle, saying, “Well, Buddy, we’ve already introduced you. It is Buddy, isn’t it? You don’t use Alfred much?”
“Not much,” Meadle admitted. Seated in the middle—hear-no-evil—he was blinking a lot.
Time to move the process along. “Well, I’m Mark Sterling, Mark to my friends, of whom I hope to soon count yourselves, and this is Osbourne Faulk, known as Os to friend and foe alike.”
“Mr. Os to foe,” Os said.
“Yes, of course,” Mark agreed, bouncing his negotiator’s smile off Os’s prominent cheekbone. “If you’d like to introduce your friends, Buddy,” he went on, and spread his hands in a welcoming way, “even if only by nickname at this moment, it would certainly help us to move forward.”
“I’m Mac,” said the fellow on the left: see-no-evil, of course.
Buddy turned to look at the profile of his other friend, who now looked like a man in a swarm of gnats, intolerably pestered yet unwilling to open his mouth to complain. Buddy said, “You want me to innerduce you?”
“I don’t know what this is all about,” cried speak-no-evil. “What are we doing here?”
“Introducing ourselves, at the moment,” Mark told him, pleasantly enough. “What we are doing here in a larger sense, however, if I take that to be your question, I believe we have all been brought to this corner of the world by a desire for revenge against one Monroe Hall.”
Mac gave him a skeptical look. “You didn’t work for Hall.”
Oh, so that was it. Buddy was the driver, but Mac the natural leader. Mark remembered it had been Mac, from the rear seat of the Taurus, who’d said, “I think we should do it.” Therefore, addressing Mac more directly now, Mark said, “No, indeed, we didn’t work for Monroe Hall, at least we were spared that. However, we did invest with SomniTech.”
To Mark’s left, Os made that little grr sound he’d often make when about to lose control at tennis. Patting that knee—it quivered a little—Mark went on, “It has been our hope, since pitching our tent outside the Hall compound, to, one way or another, recoup our losses.”
“Us, too,” Buddy said.
Surprised, Mark said, “You invested?”
“Everything,” Buddy told him. “Life insurance. Health insurance. Pension plan.”
Oh, those things. They hardly mattered in the grand scheme of existence, after all, but Mark could just see that Buddy and his friends might treasure them more than they were really worth. Symbolic value, and so on. Sympathy at full bore, he said, “So you see, we are in a similar situation.”
“I’m Ace,” abruptly said speak-no-evil, sitting up straight like a drum major, frowning massively at Mark.
Mark smiled upon him. “Welcome to the group, Ace. Have you something to add?”
“How do we know,” Ace demanded, “you aren’t a cop?”
The limo, rented, like the Navigator, for its flash effect, traversed a climbing curve. The view outside, lovely enough, was sufficiently unchanging so as not to distract from the conversation within. His most open and boyish smile on his face, Mark said, “Ace, all I can tell you is, no one in my entire life has ever mistaken me for a policeman.”
Mac said, “Ace, these aren’t cops. These are—whatchucallit—venture capitalists.” Raising a thick eyebrow at Mark, he said, “That right?”
“Very good, Mac,” Mark said. “Yes, we are investors by trade, though at rather a low level, in comparison with some of the names you’ll read in the newspapers. We’ve had our wins and our losses, a nice win in a particular kind of rear window SUV windshield wiper, an unfortunate loss on a kind of nonflammable Christmas wreath available in every color except green—”
Os grred again, and Mark moved smoothly on: “But rarely have we trusted any company as much as we trusted SomniTech, nor any smooth-talking son of a bitch as we trusted Monroe Hall—yes, Os, we know—and I’m afraid we severely overextended ourselves there, so that our little company at this moment is in ruins at our feet.”
“Too bad,” Buddy said, though without what sounded like much real sympathy.
“Yes, it is bad,” Mark agreed. “Os and I are living on relatives, an unpleasant alternative in any circumstance. To make capital, as everyone knows, you must start with capital, and capital is just what we don’t have at this moment. All sources, familial and institutional, had already been exhausted before the final blow fell. Long after Monroe Hall was taking money out of SomniTech, he was still urging us to put money in. Yes, Os.” Mark patted that quivering knee once more, then told the trio, “It is only here, with our hands on Monroe Hall—yes, Os, on Monroe Hall’s throat—that we can hope to recoup, to raise the capital that will finance a few extremely promising opportunities about which we have been made aware, but I’m sure you’ll understand if I refrain from discussing in this venue.”
Os spoke for the first time, his throat partly closed by the intensity of his feelings, so that his voice had a rather clogged aspect: “It might be enough for you three to just beat the bastard up, but we need him to put the blood back in our veins.”
Mac said, “Beat him up?”
Oh. Had they been wrong about these three? Mark said, “Os and I, having been aware of you three for some time, had assumed simple physical revenge was your plan. Were we wrong?”
“That depends,” Mac said, belatedly being cagy.
“I know there are others in the neighborhood with that sort of idea,” Mark told them. “There’s a fellow sits in the lobby of the Liberty Bell Hotel down in Dongenaide with a horsewhip, tells anybody who’ll listen he’s a former stockholder, wiped out, intends to horsewhip Monroe Hall within an inch of his life. How he expects to horsewhip Hall in the lobby of the Liberty Bell Hotel in Dongenaide I have no idea, but there he is.”
Os said, “Not to kill him, though. I mean you three. I don’t want you killing him. Not before he lays the golden egg.”
Mac said to Mark, “You told Ace nobody ever mistook you for a cop. How many people you think mistake us for killers?”
“Point taken,” Mark said. “But you haven’t been hanging around here for your health. You have some scheme in mind. I tell you what. I’ll tell you ours, and then you tell us yours. Deal?”
The three looked at one another, then Buddy and Ace looked at Mac, and then Mac looked at Mark and said, “You go first?”
“That’s the proposal,” Mark agreed. “Right now, if you’d like.”
As the Taurus three adjusted themselves, getting more comfortable because they were about to be told a story, Mark said, “Monroe Hall did not drain the life out of a large and viable corporation out of personal need. He did it out of an excess of personal greed. In truth, Monroe Hall was born rich, as his father had been before him, and his father before him. In truth, despite the devastation he has caused to all around him, Monroe Hall is still rich. Some of his relatives who trusted him have a bit less than the cushion they’d always assumed would be there, but Hall himself is sitting on a pile.”
Buddy said, “That’s what we want some of.”
“Good,” Mark said. “It is always a good thing when partners share a goal. Now, our scheme is dependent upon Monroe Hall’s offshore holdings, untouched by the federal prosecutors, untouchable by American courts.”
Mac said, “Offshore holdings? What’s that?”
“Bank accounts, real estate, government paper, all in places closed off to American law.” Gesturing at the tinted windows, Mark said, “You’ve heard of them as tax havens.”
Mac said, “And where those dictators stash their loot, before they get thrown out. Numbered accounts.”
“Numbered accounts, exactly. Untraceable, untappable, even unprovable.”
“Not,” the constricted Os said, “with our hands on his throat.”
“This is the idea, yes,” Mark said. “We know how these money instruments work. Once we get our hands on Monroe, we can force him to make irrevocable transfers from his accounts to our accounts.”
Shaking his head, Mac said, “The minute he walks into a bank—”
“No bank,” Mark told him. “In fact, no travel. Really, all the best banking these days is done on the Internet.”
“You mean,” Buddy said, eyes clouded with confusion, “hack into his bank accounts?”
“Certainly not,” Mark said. “That’s why we need the physical presence of Monroe Hall. Given Os’s volatile personality, as you have no doubt remarked it, Monroe himself can be persuaded to make the transfers. After all, he knows his passwords, his identification numbers, just where to access which holdings.”
Mac said, “You’re gonna put his feet to the fire, you mean.”
“We considered that as a method,” Mark said, “but it’s too hard to explain a fire in June. There are other ways. And Monroe knows Os, he can guess what he’s capable of.” As the trio soberly assessed Os, considering what he might be capable of, Mark said, “But now it’s your turn.”
Again they all exchanged looks. Ace asked his friends, “Do we tell them? There’s two of them, so they can be each other’s witness, if they wanna turn us in.”
“There’s three of us,” Mac pointed out, “if we wanna turn them in. Why would we?”
Ace frowned, searching for an answer, while Buddy shook his head and said, “Oh, go ahead, Mac, tell them.”
“Sure.” Facing Mark and Os, Mac said, “Hold him for ransom.”
“Ransom?” Mark considered that. “You mean a straight kidnapping?”
“Almost.” Mac nodded at his friends. “We’re all members of ACWFFA, and—”
“I’m sorry, the what?”
“Our union,” Mac explained. “There’s over twenty-seven hundred union members just from ACWFFA lost everything with SomniTech. So the idea is, we grab him, we hold him for ransom, but we don’t want the ransom for us. The ransom goes to the union.”
“Ten mil,” Buddy said.
“What that is,” Mac said, “it’s a little over three grand for each and every union member.”
“Outa his pocket,” Ace said, “and into ours.”
“I know three grand doesn’t seem like a lot to you guys,” Mac said, “but our union members could use it, and it would be like a symbol. Justice got done.”
“Admirable,” Mark said, and meant it. “I admit you surprise me, Mac, I hadn’t expected selflessness. I admit I’m feeling abashed. But I’m afraid there are problems with your idea.”
“Yeah,” Ace said. “We can’t get our hands on him.”
“In addition to that,” Mark said.
Os made one of his rare appearances, saying, “Who’d pay for the son of a bitch? Not ten mil, ten bucks. Who’d pay for him?”
“His wife,” Mac said.
Mark said, “It’s possible you’re right about that, Mac, but if her, surely she’s the only one.”
“One will do,” Mac said.
“Except not,” Mark told him. “If she tried to raise the ransom, what assets would she use? Her husband’s.”
“That’s the idea,” Ace said.
“But,” Mark said, “if Alicia Hall—that’s her name—if she reached out to her husband’s unseized holdings, if she withdrew ten million dollars from anything at all belonging to him, and brought it into the country, the courts would take it away from her long before she could get it to you and the … your union.”
“ACWFFA,” Mac said, helpfully.
“Yes, them,” Mark said. “The money might get to Alicia Hall, if she asked for it, but it would never get through her. Our idea has a much better likelihood of success.”
Mac said, “Then why’d you want to talk to us? If you’ve already got your success.”
“Because,” Mark said, “while we have the likelihood of success, which you do not, so far we do not have the actuality of success. But with three strong, gifted, imaginative, and, if I may say so, noble fellows like yourselves joined to us, success might still be in the offing.”
“An extra ten mil to you,” Os threw in.
“Exactly,” Mark said. “So long as we’re having our way with Monroe’s offshore accounts, there’s no reason we can’t drop an additional bundle into the coffers of, uh, the, your union.”
“ACWFFA,” Mac said.
“What we’ve been thinking recently,” Mac said, “is, it might be what we got to do now is go in there into that compound and just bring him out.”
Mark turned a hugely beaming countenance upon Os, who himself was very nearly smiling. “There, you see?” Mark said. “Great minds do think alike.”